(I hear that there is even a law in the jungle)
Despite all the uncertainty due to security fears and the program changes the just held Lahore literary festival was a breath of fresh air, the only regret was that due to the program the festival was curtailed from three days to one and only three sessions held simultaneously instead of five sessions. With a result that the audience was deprived of hearing many authors and similarly many especially new authors whose voice and books would have otherwise been discussed were disappointed. This is probably the first literary fest that I have attended that did not have an entry fee, in some other festivals one even had to pay for individual sessions.
The resilience of the organisers particularly Razi Ahmed and Nusrat Jamil and indeed of the entire city was applauded, the attitude of the authors perhaps best captured by the acclaimed artist and writer Molly Crabapple’s quote – “If another person tells me I’m brave to be in Lahore, they can stuff it”.
The day started and appropriately ended with the genius of Michael Palin, who in conversation with Kamila Shamsi captivated and amused the audience with insight into the Monthy Python team functioned and how they managed to write pure genius sketches like “What have the Romans given us” in the Life of Brian, or “the parrot scene in the Circus “- they wrote in pairs and prioritized the output, except for Terry Gillingham who wrote alone and was never made to forget by his co-authors that he was Welsh. When asked about his travel writing and documentaries Palin cited his Himalayan adventure series as probably his personal favourite and emphasised his understandable attraction to Chitral and the Northern Areas.
The session “Today in Fake news” with Max Roddenbeck author of the seminal tome “Cairo a City Victorious”, together with celebrated author Ahmed Rashid, Narmeen Shiekh Qasim Nauman and Fasih Ahmed was contextual and informative, particularly in today’s Trump post-truth world turbocharged by twitter and social media. A similar theme was reflected in the discussion between Mohsin Hamid and the Nigerian American author Teju Cole and the obsession with Identity. In Cole’s words “…you know who is obsessed with identity? White people. I don’t wake up and look in the mirror and say “hello black man””.
One has come across some of the international authors at other international literary fests; the sessions with Urdu authors for me were unique and gratifying. Zehra Nigah while praising the interest shown by the new generation particularly the interactions she had at Sabeen Mahmoud’s The Second Floor space, also lamented the gradual decline in Urdu literature, privately she mentioned that she feared that at this rate of lack of interest in Urdu …there would be no one left to appreciate her work. She reminded me of Ghalibs’ words after the 1847 massacre of Delhi by the British “I feared that when I die there would be no one left to mourn”. She also read two poems that poignantly remind us of the current situation “Suna hai Kay jungle ka Koi dastoor hota hai” (I hear that there is even a law in the jungle) – The poem alludes to the fact that even in the jungle the inhabitants are conscious of their surroundings. The second poem “Samjhotai ki chadar” (the valence of understanding) reflected the difficulty of love overcoming hate.
Other sessions that I unfortunately could not attend included conversations with Pakistan’s ultimate medicine man Adeeb Rizvi and how he overcame all obstacles to establish an outstanding institution. Conversations about Pakistan at Seventy with Prof. Ayesha Jalal and Willian Dalrymple, Momina Aijazuddin with Jeff Koehler about Food and travel from Morocco to Darjeeling. Art in the Age of Fascism was a discussion on Molly Crabapple book, and Bethany Wratslaw discussion on John Lockwood Kipling (Rudyard Kipling’s father) and Punjab’s Arts and Craft.
William Dalrymple and Anita Anand gave us a fascinating account of the myths and history behind the Kohinoor diamond and their book on the subject, while Danyal Mohiuddin gave us an insight into his new book “This is Where the Serpent lives”. Mohsin Hamid discussed the challenges of writing his new book with Kamila Shamsi.
There were many unfortunate omissions: Dr Syeda Saiydaim Hameed the lone delegate from India had worked hard and brought several copies of her new book on Gold Dust of Begum Sultans but at the last minute, her session was cancelled. Similarly Prof Tahira Naqvi had flown from New York but her main session too was cancelled.
More significantly the Kashmiri author Basharat Peer was not given a visa in time and could not attend the festival disappointing his many fans who were dying to ask him about the latest situation in the valley and his brilliant article in the New York Times about the death of Burhan Wani. Overall however it was an excellent show – perhaps had the Punjab government made available the Al Hamra cultural complex, it would have saved the organisers and participants a lot of trouble. We need to stand up to our values because as we all know – terrorist don’t even obey the law of the jungle.